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The True Swift Boat Story

Paul Alexander's documentary about John Kerry and his swift boat crew offers a window into the world of men who actually served.
 
 
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"There was never a crew of guys who loved their country and fought for each other more than they did," John Kerry has said of the five men under his command on a swift boat patrolling the Mekong Delta in 1969. "They are still the best of brothers, and the best of America." Their story begins in Vietnam, but would carry on through decades of friendship and living with the memories of a war America had never seen the likes of before. Jonathan Marlow talks to Paul Alexander about how he came to make 'Brothers in Arms.'

I was not initially aware of your radio show at WABC. How did you and John Batchelor pair-up?

John and I were friends from the health club and started our radio career with a show on Bloomberg Radio. Soon we were at WABC, and on September 12, 2001, unable to air Dr. Laura following the tragedy of the day before, Phil Boyce put John and me on nightly, and we dominated nighttime radio in New York so completely ABC decided to syndicate us. But ultimately I missed writing and left the show this past Christmas.

Do you think that you will work together again at some point in the future?

At the moment I have no plans to return to radio, but I'm always open to the right idea.

You've written a number of biographies on actors, artists and authors – James Dean, Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, J.D. Salinger – but more recently have shifted focus to politicians – John McCain, John Kerry. Is this a temporary move into more political territory or representative of a larger change in your career?

I started writing about politics when John Kennedy Jr. asked me to write a piece about Robert Dole for the first issue of George, the one with Cindy Crawford on the cover. I loved writing about politics so much that over time I stopped writing about anything else, really. I have done two books, one on John McCain and one on John Kerry, and I have written a number of political pieces, mostly these days for Rolling Stone, where Jann Wenner has been a delight to work for. Like John, Jann has let me write about whatever interests me at the moment. My profile of Governor George W. Bush, as he started his first run for president, a story called "All Hat, No Cattle," which appeared in the magazine in the summer of 1999, is still the longest magazine piece published on Bush. As for nonfiction, I will continue to write about politics in the future, as long as someone like Jann Wenner will let me.

Your Rolling Stone piece in 2002, "John Kerry: Ready for His Close-Up," was, I believe, the first mention of Kerry's possible presidential bid in the magazine, perhaps the first anywhere in the national media. The last paragraph begins, "It almost seems as if Kerry's life has been invented by Aaron Sorkin or some other Hollywood type." What made you decide to make a film of Kerry's Vietnam period, specifically his four months in command of PCF 94?

While I was writing "Ready for His Close Up," I ran across a photograph of Kerry with his crew from Swift Boat 94 – a photograph that has now become famous. To me, as they stood in that swift boat on the Mekong Delta in the spring of 1969, Kerry's crew represented a cross section of America. There was Mike from Northern California, Del from Chicago, Gene from a farm in Iowa, David from South Carolina, Tommy from Boston – and Kerry was their commanding officer. What had happened to them that they should all end up in a small swift boat in the middle of the worst fighting in the Vietnam War?

In time, I contacted David Wade, who was then in Senator Kerry's senate office working as his communications director, and told him I wanted to make a documentary film about the crew of the 94. David set up two telephone conference calls with all four of the remaining crew members [Tommy died in 1997], and as soon as they all started talking, I knew I had to make the film. A year and a half later, it is now available nationwide on DVD and the film is getting excellent reviews.

As your Rolling Stone article was prescient about Kerry's presidential aspirations, your documentary touches on an area that would otherwise seem to be unassailable – his military record. Yet, with the publication of Unfit for Command , this record was systematically disputed on every front by unscrupulous folks that weren't even present. Therein, your film "sets the record straight," even though this isn't really the intention of the film.

I shot Brothers in Arms in the summer and early fall of 2003 – long before there was anything called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. As it turned out, my film contains interviews with the men who actually served directly with Kerry, as opposed to the SBVT crowd, none of whom served directly with Kerry. So, yes, on its most basic level, Brothers in Arms sets the record straight about what happened to Kerry in Vietnam – and it tells the story from the point of view of the men who know Kerry best.

Does this positioning make it difficult for the true message of the film to come through? Since the film is reaching its largest audience in the last few weeks, thanks to theatrical dates across the country and a recent DVD release, are casual reviewers missing the relationships of these ordinary men placed in extraordinary conditions?

The film deals as much with the aftermath of Vietnam as it does with Vietnam itself. What happened to the guys after they came back from Vietnam was not always pleasant. Del and David had serious problems with depression and alcohol abuse; Gene had problems with alcohol as well. But I think their stories are important to hear. If the film is anything, I think it is a message against war. Maybe if the Bush Administration had more members who had actually served in the military they would not be so eager to commit American troops to go into harm's way.

Was it difficult to get Del Sandusky, David Alston, Mike Medeiros and Gene Thorson together to talk on-camera about their time on the Mekong Delta?

It was not easy to get Del, David, Mike, and Gene to tell me their war stories. As we have seen with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Vietnam can be an extremely emotional subject for veterans to deal with. But I had written Man of the People: The Life of John McCain , and for that book I had interviewed a number of people who had been in the Hanoi Hilton with Senator McCain. So the guys knew the approach I would take in dealing with the larger issue of Vietnam. Still, it was not easy for them to talk about what happened to them over there. With both Del and David, I had to stop the interview with them because the subject had become too emotional. In the end, I felt honored that the guys trusted me enough to tell me the stories they had shared with so few people through the years.

You already had access to John Kerry. Was he, as I suspect, always supportive of the film? Was he ever concerned that there would be too much material in the media, leading up to the election, about this period in his life?

Here is the thing about being the first to a story: you then end up having a front-row seat to the story as it unfolds. Throughout 2003, I was perhaps the only journalist who felt that Kerry would ultimately prevail and be the Democratic nominee for president. While the rest of the national press corps were all piling on the Howard Dean bandwagon, I kept saying, "You know, John Kerry is a tough campaigner and he is a great closer, so don't count him out."

I feel the same way today, by the way. The Senator certainly has a tougher opponent in President Bush, but anything can happen in politics. Because this has been my general attitude about Kerry from the start – that is to say, I have no preconceived notion against him like so many journalists do – I have been able to have access to him and his inner circle. I don't work for the campaign; I never have and I never will. But I do have access, which I think comes through in Brothers in Arms . It is extremely rare for Kerry to sit down and talk about Vietnam the way he does in Brothers in Arms , but he did.

Fortunately, your film isn't an entirely Kerry-centric piece, although Kerry is the factor that will draw attention to the documentary. A few of his "brothers in arms" have touching stories about life after Vietnam. Regarding a few revelations from David, for instance, did he – or anyone else – ever ask you later not to use certain things that they said in their interviews?

No one in Brothers in Arms ever asked me to remove anything. In fact, after I finished a cut of the film, I never made any changes in it at all. I'm especially proud of the way David is portrayed in the film. Between my radio and journalistic careers, I have interviewed thousands of people. But without a doubt, one of the best interviews I have ever done – maybe the best – was with David Alston. I think that comes through in Brothers in Arms .

Your conversation with David is definitely one of the highlights of the film. How did you settle on the running time for Brothers in Arms ? At sixty-eight minutes, it's clearly longer that a cut for television but shorter than your usual theatrical film. I suppose it's as long as it needs to be?

Being a novice, I didn't really think about the running time of the film. I just told the story I wanted to tell in the length of time I needed. As it turned out, I think the running time is just right.

Michael Bacon has made something of a career of writing music for documentaries, along with television projects and a few narrative features. Were you pleased with his score?

Michael was an absolute dream to work with. He is a brilliant composer and musician. I can't wait to do another project with him. I hope he feels the same way.

This being your debut film, are you interested in making other films, documentaries or otherwise? Do you have other projects in the works?

I have been approached to direct an independent feature film, which I'm extremely interested in doing. It's a wonderful script set in the world of Nashville and country music, so it could be very timely. It's also really funny. We'll see what happens on that. If we are going to shoot it, it will happen rather quickly. Over the last two years, I have also written and directed a play about Sylvia Plath called Edge and directed a British revival of Ariel Dorfman's classic contemporary play Death and the Maiden .

It seems, given the play, the biography and the collection Ariel Ascending , that you'll return to Plath as a subject at some point.

I have been approached by a television producer to write a script about the life of Sylvia Plath. This would not be an adaptation of Edge, the one-woman play that I wrote for my friend Angelica Torn. Angelica and I already have dates lines up for a national tour of the play next year, so this would be something different. I think I'm going to write it, as long as I am able to direct it as well. I have no plans to write another piece that I don't direct. I am writing three pieces for Rolling Stone between now and Election Day, but after that, I will probably go back to directing. We are putting together a national tour of Edge for next year.

You're hitting the road this week with John Kerry for one of these aforementioned pieces in Rolling Stone. During this final stretch of the campaign, what new material do you hope to cover?

I have been covering Senator Kerry now for three years, so it sort of makes sense that I would go out on the trail with him as he hits the home stretch of this presidential campaign. The piece should come out in mid-October. My Democrat friends – all of whom could not be more nervous – are hoping the piece is about Kerry's latest turnaround. We'll see. I think even Senator Kerry would tell you his campaign has hit a rough spot. But he would also hasten to point out that in politics you don't win an election in the first two weeks of a race; you win it in the last two weeks. And as for this never-ending string of polls, if the polls from the fall of 2003 had been correct we'd be talking about Howard Dean running against Bush today – not John Kerry.

Jonathan Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, occasional producer, critic, curator and composer.